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The Future of Natural Gas – Home Generation of Electricity?

home generation - Jim Willis reportsJim Willis
Editor & Publisher, Marcellus Drilling News (MDN)

 

Home generation of electricity using personal generators powered by natural gas are on the horizon and can be a nice complement to solar energy.

Last December I, on behalf of Marcellus Drilling News (MDN), I attended and reported on the Platts Global Energy Outlook Forum in New York City. One of the most interesting speakers at that event was David Crane, CEO of electricity-generating giant NRG Energy. At that event Crane touted a pretty radical idea: home generation of electricity. About 1/3 of all U.S. homes have natural gas pipelines running to them. Crane believes technology exists to allow those homeowners to produce their own electricity with small units powered by natural gas, thereby cutting out the local electric utility. A recent article in Forbes magazine details why Crane’s idea isn’t just idle speculation.

Home Generation of Electricity with Natural Gas on Horizon

I reported the following from the Platts event:

Crane proposed something that the other panelists seemed to be skeptical of, but is an intriguing notion all the same. Crane spun this argument: Currently some 34 million (out of 80-90 million) American homes have natural gas pipelines right to the house–to deliver gas. He believes that gives the gas industry an opportunity to “disintermediate” electric utilities. Crane said technology exists and is being developed that will allow homeowners to create their own electricity by using natural gas. So a homeowner would no longer need an electric line to the house–or if they did, it would simply be a backup system and not the main system. Crane postulated (predicted?) that such a change is on the way in the U.S.

The Forbes article brings to light how Crane “eats his own dog food,” meaning he has a unit in the basement of his Princeton, NJ home that yes–uses natural gas to produce electricity. It is, for now, a backup generator–in case electricity from the pole (or in Crane’s case, from the solar panels on his roof) goes out. The unit is experimental and only the second one built by the same guy who invented the Segway scooter–Dean Kamen.

The natgas using/home generation/electric producing contraption is called a Beacon 10 and it’s taken Kamen ten years of experimentation to refine it. The Beacon 10 uses a Stirling engine, which is much more efficient than other types of engines. The Stirling engine uses heat to push a gaseous fluid, driving a piston. Essentially a Stirling engine converts heat energy into mechanical energy. Burning natgas provides the heat (we assume).

Home Generation - Beacon 10

Beacon 10 Unit – Source: GreenTechMedia.com

Crane is helping Kamen “work out the kinks” in the Beacon 10 by providing a live, living laboratory–Crane’s house. Crane is a big solar advocate. As we noted in our Platts coverage:

NRG owns a number of coal-powered electric generating plants, but is committed to transitioning them. But that transition, according to Crane, will happen over a number of years (decades) and in the meantime using coal to generate electricity is a necessity in the U.S. Crane said that a few years ago NRG went in big for wind power but quickly became disillusioned with it, for various reasons. Today NRG is pragmatic in using coal and natural gas, but their future (said Crane) is in solar. And so they continue to concentrate their future forward-looking efforts on the solar space. Crane said selling solar to a consumer is much more personal than selling wind power and other forms of power. A rep goes to a home, sits at the table with the homeowner, and talks about how it’s going to look and work with solar panels installed on the roof. It’s more tangible–gets you up close and personal with the customer. And he likes that aspect of solar.

Home Generation Is All About Solar and Natural Gas – Combined

NRG is a big coal-burning electric generator, but Crane’s vision for NRG’s future is solar–and for at least for a generation–in natural gas. NRG is rapidly expanding their solar business with a somewhat different and unique model: Consumers don’t buy solar panels from NRG, they lease them. Crane hopes to do the same thing with personal natgas generators like the Beacon 10.

The Beacon 10, according to Kamen, could be manufactured and installed for about $10,000. It produces a hefty 10 kilowatts of electricity–about five times more than the average household uses. Kamen plans to produce a 2.5 kilowatt version soon.

Crane’s plan is to partner with Kamen and, as they do with solar panels, lease Beacon units to homeowners, making it less expensive for a homeowner to transition to the new electric source. NRG can lease you both your solar panels and a natgas electric generator. Snip snip go the electric lines! (Or rather, they stay in place as a backup.)

Crane is crafty, however. If the Beacon is on and producing more electricity than the house needs, NRG will sell the excess electricity back to the grid for a tidy profit.

To read more about the fascinating new Beacon 10 and the sharp-as-a-tack David Crane, click to read the two Forbes articles here and here.

A big hat-tip and thank you to ongoing MDN contributor and friend Chris Acker. Chris, as you may recall, is a retired geological engineer with an MBA. He grew up in the oil fields of Venezuela where his father, a petroleum engineer, was a drilling contractor for all the major players, onshore and off. Chris owns a house in Montrose, PA and leased his land to Cabot Oil & Gas. He now has two shiny new natural gas wells sitting a few hundred feet from his house–and he loves it! Chris is also personal friends with his old Princeton classmate David Crane. Chris alerted us to the pair of articles in Forbes.

Editor’s Note: Also see this article for another example of the potential for home generation of electricity.

For more great articles on the subject of natural gas development every single day, subscribe to Marcellus Drilling News using this convenient link.

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7 thoughts on “The Future of Natural Gas – Home Generation of Electricity?

  1. The technology is already on the market with some interesting concepts. Honda has had a Combined Heat and Power unit for Residences for a while. Volkswagen and a German Utility were to build 100,000 CHP units which would be utlity controlled to ramp up power inside 100,000 host homes when Electrical output from Renewables were down. The VW units would be controlled via the internet by the Electric Utility. The Homes get their power heat and hot water while the ultility gets about 1000 megawatts without having to break ground on a new power plant . The scale of NG users in American Homes would make for incredible decreases in co2. Just imagine someone next door to a NG gas user perhaps seeing the incentive of changing an oil Furnace to a CHP NG fired unit . This should also be the way of public buildings like Schools

  2. Great article, once again proving the synergy between solar and natural gas!

    One point that is worth making is that the 10KW of power produced is probably constant as long as gas is supplied. The PV installs I’ve seen are usually quoted as installed capacity, which does not reflect what they actually produce – none at night, reduced output on overcast days, etc. So the net is that you wind up selling any excess capacity to the provider at wholesale prices, and buy at retail on those overcast days. The NG setup in conjunction with solar would truly allow you to move off the grid. because you’d have your own backup. Or at least it seems that way.

  3. Thanks for the info. Been wondering about this lately. Back in the late 1970s while buying oil and gas leases in Northwest Oklahoma had a farmer who wanted a clause in his lease so that he could run irrigation pumps right off the wellhead. Checked with a farm equipment dealer and sure enough it could be done. Used quite a bit of natural gas though so didn’t didn’t buy the lease.

  4. Good blog, Really helpful to those who want to buy a new generator or who make a plan to buy it, It’s true that solar panels are more costly as compared to generators but the electric portable generator is option because this generator give more backup with high electricity.

  5. The link to “another example” takes you to an interesting article but no one at the company responds to questions. It seems they are looking for a sale in the hundreds of units at one time, but I can’t get answers.

    Please point me to real companies actually implementing, not prototyping, the concept of generating electricity from NG.

    • It seems I am missing something as using NG to run an internal combustion engine is not at all news. Are you guys discussing something else? Hundreds of companies make electrical generators that use natural gas as a fuel.

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